In Defense of the Book, in All its Forms

Today is the Day of the Book, in part spurred by the urge to recognize two of the great progenitors of modern literature, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who both died on 23 April 1616, at least according to the official history. Their work and the various arts that go into making books, as such, are celebrated around the world as staples of modern global civilization and the human element of culture.

But the book is more than those sweeping historical energies; it is a concrete, observable register of intent and of meaning, which carries evidence of our humanity forward and informs and improves future worlds. The book, bound pages imprinted with text in one form or another, is one of the oldest continuously used and still highly relevant technologies, and for good reason.

Paper is both a simple and a complicated tool, requiring large amounts of industry and energy to produce, yet is produced in massive quantities and seems endlessly available. Staining it in a way that allows a visual rendering of a given code (a language and its preferred alphabet) allows us to create a record of ideas and thought patterns that holds up remarkably well against time and can be accessed with no technology aside from our own senses and knowledge of the code in question. Fortunately, the human brain seems to be organically structured to deal fluidly with language as a framework for thought and communication, and acquiring knowledge of an as-yet unlearned language is not too daunting a task. And we have translators for when it is. 

Language interacts with the human mind in a highly permissive and constructive way, and even seems to provide the brain with structural clues that permit us to acquire knowledge more rapidly than deliberate intention would allow, at least at the earliest stages. The book is designed to help language do its job, of affording us a more expansive communicative landscape than we could otherwise access, and expand the scope of our intellect and our ability to imagine and to achieve.

In the age of digital media, when electronic text is all the rage, and really does offer some major improvements on the static page, it’s worth taking note of the staying power of paper and ink. Having a way to not only access and to share knowledge, but to believe in its consistency, is central to being able to build a society with persistent opportunities to live and enact its ideals.

While the absolute long-term preservation of certain fragile documents, like the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, requires advanced scientific measures to achieve a hermetically sealed environment, such safe conditions have been achieved by less complex methods, as in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The book is a lightweight, portable, personable and everywhere accessible (“always on”) rendition of the graven-in-stone paradigm we find with Hammurabi’s Code or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It gives us the constant reference and the confidence of a verifiable authoritative version.

The nature of the digital medium is such that one has a very difficult time checking the authenticity of “original” texts, without a paper original on hand. (This is the logic of the movement for a voter-verifiable paper trail in electronic voting processes in the United States, where accurately registering the “intent of the voter” is mandated by law.)

We have to recognize the power of digital technologies, and their ability to liberate us and expand our communicative and productive reach, but we also need to understand the complete story and the genius of the hard copy bound volumes on which all digital publishing is ultimately based. Can electronic paper replace the paper copy?

In many ways, it can… it can give us mobility and freedom of selection, allow us to carry thousands of volumes with us, in an object that weighs less and is far less cumbersome than even one volume of a thousand pages. It can allow us to access huge reserves of text from almost anywhere (Amazon’s ‘Whispernet’ service, for instance, via the Kindle devices). It might even allow us to create distinct, parallel reading environments. And it can certainly keep a book looking “new” and undiminished by overuse.

But then, for those who love reading, isn’t the physical experience of the page part of the enjoyment? Isn’t the physical page’s mortality, its vulnerability, its susceptibility to wear and tear, part of what endears us to a given book, makes us believe we have participated in its ongoing life and that it has infiltrated into ours?

Electronic paper does not allow for that kind of organic experience with the written word. And it is not as stable as the printed page. Ultimately, the book is a powerful technology for delivering information that works without a device or service provider. It can be owned and kept in an intimate setting, without requiring a charge of electricity from a wide-ranging grid.

It allows for intimate moments in which writers have succeeded in realizing something uniquely human to interact directly with intimate moments in which readers are realizing something uniquely human. And that, after all, is what we celebrate when we celebrate the book, the literary arts, the dream and daring of what writing is for the human species.

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